The ‘Mystery’ of the Lyric with a Poem by Oswald

The ‘mystery’ of the lyric is twofold. There is the technical side: the ways the art engages with language as reference, as sound, as grammar (narrative). The look on the page or in the resounding air. The second aspect is more psychological. The lyric involves the poet’s use of a mask. What sounds ‘sincere’ is a metaphysical act to access certain energies by bypassing the self. Or say, the job of the technical side is to strip the ego of self-consciousness, leaving it open to a more original identity. This is an act of self-transcending, opening the poet to her nothingness in the fertile void. (I borrow this vocabulary from William Desmond.)

In Alice Oswald’s ‘A Drink from Cranmere Pool’ (Falling Awake, 2016), she narrates the mystery. It partakes of the ancient genre of pilgrimage, but the radical otherness sought and found by the poet is not named by a biblical narrative tradition but named in the ethos of the between. Having said that we can say that ‘Almost/not water exactly’ draws on the mystical apophatic tradition of the divine that defeats language.

We say we live in the between because where we come to be in our poetic space is charged with the equivocal nature of language. The mystery of the craft is how the poem speaks through its mask from a porosity between the unselfed self and the unnamable other. The metaphysics of lyric is frustratingly thorny compared to the experience it embodies. Oswald felicitous art illustrates the mystery at its most pellucid and refreshing.

The recognition of Oswald as a major poet suggests the reading public does not recognize the modernist alienation between religion and poetry. Between religion and poetry is a fertile space.


Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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